Canada’s Grassland Birds Face Declining Populations

The Greater Sage-grouse is on the brink of extinction in Canada. This iconic prairie bird, known for its spectacular mating dance, will likely vanish if emergency measures are not put in place to protect its grassland and sagebrush habitat. Unfortunately, the Sage-grouse is not alone. It’s one of many grassland bird species that have been declining over the past four decades. In a recent report co-published by Nature Canada, the plight of Canada’s grassland birds is placed in the context of changing agricultural practices, urban development and international conservation challenges to bring to light the need for concerted efforts to save grassland birds and their habitat before it’s too late.
The report, The State of Canada’s Birds 2012, draws on 40 years of data and summarizes the status of Canada’s bird populations for eight regions, including the boreal forest, prairies, Arctic and oceans. It’s the result of a collaborative effort between the National Bird Conservation Initiative in Canada (NABCI-Canada), and it highlights numerous changes to bird populations in Canada since the 1970s.The report found that grassland birds including Longspurs, Meadowlarks, Sprague’s pipit, Greater Sage-grouse and others, have declined by 50% due largely to a loss of habitat. Grassland bird populations are dwindling as high-intensity farming practices like wetland drainage, conversion of pastureland to cropland and over-grazing remove and degrade grassland and wetland habitat that supports grassland bird populations in the Canadian prairies and Lower Great Lakes – St. Lawrence regions.
In addition to those factors, increasing water use by cities, construction of roads and buildings that fragment habitat, and fire suppression near towns and cities compound the problem of disappearing grassland and wetland habitat. Climate change is also an emerging threat. The predicted increase in droughts for the prairies will have severe consequences for birds and humans.
However, there are significant conservation opportunities for Canadians to ensure healthy bird populations and healthy ecosystems.
So what can be done to reverse this trend?

Bird-friendly Farming

It might come as a surprise to some that maintaining healthy populations of birds in the Canadian prairies can be compatible with agricultural practices that form the basis of the region’s economy and culture.  But according to the State of Canada’s Birds report, there are conservation opportunities – as well as challenges – present in the relationship between ranchers and naturalists.
In the prairies, there is a need to expand farming practices that are compatible with birds. Many grassland birds – from Meadowlarks to Loggerhead Shrikes – benefit from appropriate livestock grazing to maintain their preferred habitat.
Here are a few more bird-friendly farming practices:
  • No-till farming
  • Planting cover crops such as pasture and hay that prevent soil erosion and provide nesting cover for some grassland birds
  • Reducing pesticide use
  • Delay of haying until after young birds fledge
  • Maintenance and re-establishment of hedgerows
An example of well-managed native grassland habitat can be found in the “community pastures” or PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) pastures in the prairie provinces. These pastures are vital to the survival of 31 species at risk, including some of Canada’s most endangered birds. But with the recent passing of Bill C-38, this critical habitat will no longer be managed by the federal government but instead be handed over to the provinces, which will likely sell the land to the highest bidder. As a result, grassland birds and other wildlife that depend on a healthy network of PFRAs face losing the protection and maintenance formerly provided by the federal government. This is an issue that conservationists will need to watch closely as the hand-over gets underway.

Buy Bird-friendly products

It has been shown that consumer choices can make a positive impact on forest birds through their choice in coffee. Shade grown coffee conserves bird habitat while sun grown coffee does not. In a similar way, some South American countries can support grassland bird habitat conservation by purchasing ‘bird certified’ beef from ranches that employ bird-friendly practices.
While bird-friendly practices are one part of the solution, the report also highlights the need for urban development to progress in a direction that conserves as much grassland habitat as possible and avoids key areas for birds.

Extend Protections Beyond Our Borders

The greatest threat for migratory grassland bird species like Swainson’s Hawk is loss of habitat both inside and outside Canada. Swainson’s Hawk over-winters in the pampas and cerrado of the Southern Cone of South America, which faces ongoing habitat loss – grasslands are increasingly being converted to agriculture, plantations or urban settlements. Effective conservation of grassland migratory bird species that Canada shares with countries throughout the Americas, requires international cooperation that ensures the needs of these birds are addressed at all phases of their life cycles.
Image of a Greater Sage-grouse

The Greater Sage-grouse faces extinction due to habitat loss

Image of a Swainson's hawk

Swainson’s hawk is losing habitat in its over-wintering sites in South America.